By Christopher Molicki
We’re about a dozen games into the season, so it’s time to reassess: The Clippers are the best team in the NBA, the Warriors are mortal, and about half of my preseason predictions I’m looking back at and wondering what recreational drugs I was on when I made them. Let’s dive into some early-season takeaways.
The Knicks are a mess: I saw this coming from a mile away, but too many people bought into the hype. The Knicks are a bad basketball team. Their defense is one of the worst in the NBA, their offense is dominated too much by Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony, and they have very poor chemistry. What hurts the most is that they might even be better if they hung onto Jerian Grant and Robin Lopez instead of acquiring Rose and Joakim Noah (being paid $72 million to do the Mannequin Challenge). But big names is all that matters to New York, apparently. Early signs from Kristaps Porzingis are promising, even though he’s a work in progress defensively and could further see his development derailed by this team. The only upside is maybe they’ll suck and draft their point guard of the future. But they’ll probably hover around 30 wins and draft a role player.
The Hawks and the Hornets are taking a leap…but it probably won’t matter: Many thought the Hawks and the Hornets (shoutout to this Hoopers commercial) would take a step back after losing Al Horford, Jeremy Lin, and Courtney Lee collectively. They’ve adjusted quite well thanks to improved defenses. Atlanta is 2nd in defensive efficiency, a number helped by a rejuvenated Dwight Howard. Meanwhile, the Hornets sit tied for 4th behind the return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the stingy Steve Clifford system. These two teams are very balanced and well-coached, but when we get to the Eastern Conference Finals, it’s unlikely to matter. The Cavaliers have sorted out all their chemistry issues, are led by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, and have solid shooting and rebounding surrounding their two stars. It’s an exciting time to be a Hawks or a Hornets fan, but their current ceiling probably isn’t better than Toronto’s was last year.
The Nets and the Lakers are fun and maybe even good: Pegged by many as the worst teams in their respective conferences, Brooklyn and Los Angeles are a combined 11-12 as of writing this (7-5 for the Lakers). While I expect the Nets to fall off, their style of play is still entertaining and encouraging. Brook Lopez has expanded his game, Kenny Atkinson has them playing at a fast pace, and youngsters like Isaiah Whitehead, Justin Hamilton, and Sean Kilpatrick look like they could be real rotation pieces. Los Angeles should take a step back too, but maybe not as much. D’Angelo Russell has been a stud as expected, but it’s the other young guns that have been pleasant surprises. Jordan Clarkson is dominating bench units, proving he’s a steal at his new contract. Big man Julius Randle has been more versatile than anyone expected, getting into the lane, passing the ball well, and using his size and body control. The Lakers’ defense will ultimately doom them, but Luke Walton’s team could be hunting for a playoff spot come April.
I was wrong about the Bulls: To be fair, not many thought the Bulls experiment would work out, but boy has it ever. A leap by Jimmy Butler and the hot shooting of Dwyane Wade has Chicago looking like a playoff lock. Their shooting combined with Taj Gibson being unleashed, Rajon Rondo not torpedoing the team, and the rest of the pieces coming together is why the Bulls are winning. They’re top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and it seems like removing Rose and Noah was addition by subtraction. They’ll cool off eventually, but the Jimmy Butler trade rumors have been put to rest.
Holy sh*t do you see the Clippers?!: My No. 2 pick behind the Warriors in the West, Los Angeles is probably the only thing standing in the way of Golden State-Cleveland III. The offense is as good as ever with Blake Griffin healthy and playing out of his mind. However, the defense (best in the NBA) and bench coming together is what’s setting this team above previous Clipper squads. How sustainable this is for guys like Raymond Felton and Wes Johnson remains to be seen, but this is exactly why you don’t blow up a team with three stars. If L.A. can reach their peak in the playoffs, they have a legit shot at winning a title.
The Timberwolves might not be ready yet: The Wolves are 4th in offensive efficiency with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins playing out of their minds, but Minnesota isn’t quite there yet. Tom Thibodeau will get them on the right track eventually, but the goal of a playoff spot is more realistic for next year. There’s nothing wrong with that; they have a lot of young players and this takes time. But for those of you (like me) who were expecting a Thunder-esque leap, check back in 2017.
Can we please help Anthony Davis?: It’s another lost season for Davis and the Pelicans, and I wonder how much longer this kind of talent can rot in the basement of the NBA. New Orleans has some nice role players: Langston Galloway, E’Twaun Moore, Solomon Hill, and Terrence Jones have had impressive starts to the season. But if one of those guys has to be the second-best player on the team, that’s a serious problem. Things will get better with the imminent returns of Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans, but starting off the year 2-9 may be too much to overcome. It sucks because Davis truly is a top-5 talent in this league, even though many may not understand that. It’d be insane for the Pels to trade him, but maybe we can sign some sort of petition to make it happen.